In 2008, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States was the culmination of hundreds of years’ worth of civil rights efforts; but all you have to do is turn on the evening news to see that our country still has a long way to go before there is ever going to be absolute equality of race – if we ever reach that point. Lee Daniels’ The Butler covers the life of one man who experienced the civil rights battles of the last century from both the foot soldier’s perspective and as a humble observer in the highest echelon of government.
Based on a Washington Post article, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” by Wil Haygood, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” tells the “true” story of Eugene Allen (called Cecil Gaines and played by Forest Whitaker in the film) a butler who served in the White House for thirty-four years under eight different Presidents, from Truman through Reagan. Like most films allegedly “based on a true story,” I’m certain there are facts here that have been “Hollywoodized,” but nevertheless, this is a poignant tale that entertainingly educates about some real-life history in our not so distant past.
The film begins with Cecil as a child in the 1920s’ cotton fields of the South, seeing his mother brutalized and his father killed, and then tracks his journey as a child servant though to his hiring at the White House and his lengthy career of service to the Presidents and their families.
When Cecil begins his White House job, director Lee Daniels (Precious) and writer Danny Strong (Game Change) then steer the movie into a dual story that covers both the butler’s tale and that of his son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who becomes a prominent civil rights activist during the sixties and seventies, much to the chagrin of his father, who fears for his son’s life and for the damage his activities might cause their family.
The film is sort of a weird but amusing mash-up of “The Remains of the Day,” “Forrest Gump” and “Malcom X,” without the goofiness of Forrest or the heavy seriousness of Malcom. In addition to being a thoughtful look at civil rights history, it also touches on strained father and son relationships and how devotion and dedication to work can destroy a family.
If you are wondering why this film is called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and maybe thinking that it is a gawky and pretentious decision for the director to have his moniker attached to the title of the movie; well, there is a good explanation. There is a 1916 silent film called “The Butler,” and although that was also the original name of this movie, the filmmakers changed the title, by adding Daniels’ name, in order to avoid legal hassles with the Motion Picture Association of America.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a top notch and star-studded cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave as a plantation matriarch, Mariah Carey in a small part as Cecil’s mother, Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s wife, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, John Cusack as President Nixon, James Marsden as President Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as a humorous Lyndon B. Johnson, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as Cecil’s co-butlers and friends at the White House.(On a side note, I find it amusing that Fonda is portraying Nancy Reagan, a casting decision that is sure to get the “Hanoi Jane” haters fired up.)
Forest Whitaker delivers a fantastic performance as Cecil, a simple man who takes great pride in his hard work and who, in his own way, quietly attempts to sway government policymakers by setting a humble and noble example. Whitaker is especially wonderful in the skin of the older man, who, after a lifetime of subservience, discovers his voice and his ability to make a difference.
There is a certain amount of storytelling clunkiness at the beginning of this film that dissipates once Cecil is actually hired in the White House and his son begins his civil rights activism, but once the film finds its stride, despite some out-of-place alcoholism and implied adultery scenes with Winfrey’s character, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a very satisfying movie experience.
If you are interested in the civil rights events that are portrayed in this movie (and you should be), I highly recommend that you check out the graphic novel, “March,” by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. Many of the events in this book, as illustrated by artist Nate Powell, come to life in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” as if Daniels used the graphic novel as a storyboard for many of the film’s civil rights sequences.
This movie is a must-see for its historical significance alone, and when you tack on the excellent performances by the first rate cast, it’s easy to forgive the narrative’s minor moments of plodding awkwardness. It’s a little strange to see this type of film released during the summer’s mix of high-speed chases and explosions, but here’s hoping Forest Whitaker is remembered come Oscar time for his great performance in this movie.